Tottenville Review

A new review of books focused on debuts, translations, and all works that would otherwise go undetected. It is a collaborative of authors, translators, and reviewers bound by one purpose: to contribute to the dialogue of literature.

Justin Torres

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Our interview took place over the phone. Justin Torres lives in San Francisco, where he has lived before under different circumstances—in his twenties, he says, in a “wild and total crazy mess.” Now, he’s a grownup: car, house, fiancé, fellowship (Wallace Stegner at Stanford), teaching gig, and heaps of critical acclaim for his gorgeous debut, We the Animals. One can tell from the lift in his voice that his face is permanently engaged in a smile, either from sheer joy (read the reviews) or from shock. Mahogany bookcases lined with the classics were not part of his upbringing. And yet, look at what he’s done. We the Animals is a wild kitten of a novel—ferocious, tiny, loud and delicate in the same breath. This semi-autobiographical novel is comprised of relatively chronological fragments of a boy’s childhood in upstate New York, spent emotionally and physically rough-housing with his two brothers, white mother, and Puerto Rican father. Animals’ structure is as much about memory as is its content, which is at once brutal and heartwarming. Justin (on the phone) is very much the same: blithe and winsome, with shadows of something much much deeper. One wonders if he might have written a dark children’s book instead of this one—as he manages the nostalgia, whimsy and then, boom, rawness, so gorgeously well.  –Jessica Soffer

INTERVIEWER

I’d like to start by saying how strange and ubiquitous the question “how much is autobiographical?” is in your interviews, and that I won’t ask it unless you’d like me to.

 

JUSTIN TORRES

Great. Thank you. Who wants to go there? I’m so tired of answering that question.

 

INTERVIEWER

Alice Munro said, “I don’t always, or even usually, read stories from beginning to end. I start anywhere and proceed in either direction.” Animals—as well as your recent New Yorker story—has the kind of writing that one could slip into on any page at all and be seized by. Was this something you considered while writing?

 

JUSTIN TORRES

Plot is rarely what captivates me in good writing. It’s language and voice and imagery—but mostly language that I love. I actually do read stories from beginning to end but understand what Munro is getting at. Honestly, I backed into writing. So the style that’s evolved, or my fingerprint, has to do with the fact that I didn’t study literature and I didn’t have preconceived notions or rules. When I started writing I was busy doing other stuff and I wanted to get to the heat as quickly as possible. When I was writing this book, I was taking a private class in New York with Jackson Taylor and a dozen other students from all walks of life and I just wanted to move the people in the room. We only got to read a couple of pages in each class and that’s why every couple of pages in Animals is a fragment. Now, I think I’m addicted to a fragmented narrative and it being about the voice and the moment.

 

INTERVIEWER

At any point, did you have to edit your novel’s structure?

 

JUSTIN TORRES

Not in terms of chronology. You could say that the first two-thirds of the book move forward chronologically but they don’t have to. It’s very episodic and fractured, like a photo album. The time jump at the end of the book was always there. When we sent out the book, a lot of editors kept saying, “I love it but it needs another hundred pages,” or “You just need to fill it out.” And I said, “No. That’s not the book I’m writing.” Jenna [Johnson at Houghton Mifflin] really got that it wasn’t a chronological coming-of-age story with a narrative arc where the character reaches a moment of individuation or understanding. It’s about that punch in the stomach and the jump at the end of the book. But we did work on the movement of the book from “we” to “I.” We focused on making sure that the first chapters were we-heavy chapters—and when there was the switch.

 

INTERVIEWER

You strike the very delicate balance of language and plot but there’s a way in which any of your chapters could stand alone. And many of those chapters could be snipped off into short poems. Were both elements—language and content—equally important to you or did one, in some way, drive the other?

 

JUSTIN TORRES

I haven’t studied poetry and I don’t really understand it, though I love it. But I do have a sense in my head that structure is content and language is content. If you put the word “mud” to the word “skate,” those words are Anglo-Saxon not Latin and flowery—and that informs the content. Words mean things and the sound of them have a meaning and that meaning is important. In the beginning of my book, for example, it was important that the language was like a chant and sounded very incantatory.

 

INTERVIEWER

Maybe poetry can be poetry because it doesn’t need to bear the content of a novel. And a novel can work without incredible language because its content can drive the language.

 

JUSTIN TORRES

My hope is just that in general. What strikes me is really precise language. I am blown away by something that’s punchy and voicey.

 

INTERVIEWER

You mention the chanting that goes on in your head. How do you maintain that while writing?

 

JUSTIN TORRES

I try to memorize before I sit down. I write really really really slowly. Incredibly slowly. It’s ridiculous. I don’t charge ahead and write a draft and then change things and do another draft. I don’t work that way. I try to memorize a sentence or a couple of sentences before I sit down to write them. And in order for me to be able to memorize them, there has to be something working on the level of rhythm and sound. I just started a story that I have to write in a short amount of time for Stanford. I’ve had these two lines in my head for days—because I haven’t had time to sit down and write—and I forget what they are now. If they were good, I would have remembered them. I don’t do that for every single sentence I write, but for a lot of them. And I talk to myself a lot and read out loud and wander around and listen to music and dance. I do a ton of writing away from the computer, which is why Animals is so short.

 

INTERVIEWER

Did you memorize the first sentence of Animals before you wrote it?

 

JUSTIN TORRES

That first passage came to me when I was waiting for the train in New York late at night and didn’t have paper on me. I never do. I memorized a lot of it that night on the way home. It wasn’t the first sentence of the book but it was in the very beginning. I remember thinking that it presented this huge problem because I didn’t know how I was going to do that collective voice.

 

INTERVIEWER

But you did—and you gorgeously captured that itchy love of families. You bestowed forgiveness on all of the characters in such a way that I wondered if you ever considered writing the narrative from a different perspective.

 

JUSTIN TORRES

I feel like I did, in a way. Technically, there’s one perspective but one of the biggest challenges was, as I made fiction out of personal experience, looking at a story of my own and understanding the motivations of all my characters. Sometimes I had to invent those motivations. And though I didn’t use anyone else’s voice explicitly, I had to understand what that mother would focus on if she were writing the scene. I wanted everyone’s perspective to come across.

 

INTERVIEWER

There’s all that empathy and yet everyone is so lonely.

 

JUSTIN TORRES

It was important for me that there were no victims and no villains and that everyone had each other, but everyone was on their own. People are beating each other and loving each other and at the end, it was hugely important to me to show the narrator betrayed by his family, but he’s betrayed them too. He’s as culpable at the end of the book as they are. It is kind of lonely but also kind of inspirational.

 

INTERVIEWER

Did you consider an audience while writing Animals?

 

JUSTIN TORRES

There were those twelve people in the room in New York City and thinking that they were from such different places really informed the way I wrote. I didn’t do the MFA thing until after I had most of this book done. If you’re writing for ten people in an MFA workshop it’s a very different thing. In Jackson Taylor’s class, they were all writers but there was a wild age range and lots of diversity. I always knew I was writing a book that was going to be tiny and kind of plotless: a poetic thing. The reception has been wonderful and has blown me away but I was never wondering what The New York Times would say if they reviewed the book, because I wasn’t expecting that. It will be weird to write the next one because I can’t pretend that no one’s going to read it. Someone is going to. It will be different, but I will try to act like I don’t care what anybody thinks. I think that’s the best approach.

 

INTERVIEWER

How was your MFA experience at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop?

 

JUSTIN TORRES

The more I’m away from Iowa, the more I miss it and look back on my experiences there with nostalgia. The best things I learned happened outside of workshop: conversations with people about literature at the bar, a Marilynne Robinson seminar on the Bible, and Allan Gurganus talking in big, general terms. I was being funded to be a writer, which was a huge vote of confidence. Also, I had to catch up and become conversant in literary things that I actually didn’t know shit about. It was definitely at that point that I decided I was a writer and writing was what I was going to do with my time on this planet. I’m so appreciative to have that experience.

 

INTERVIEWER

What happened to Animals at Iowa?

 

JUSTIN TORRES

When I got there, I had everything. But the ending felt suddenly like, Oh my God. Novel this. Novel that. I had a moment when I stopped trusting my instincts and I wrote a second narrative that wove through the book just to fill it out. It was an experiment and it was terrible and nobody will ever see it. So, I mostly worked on the ending. I think the benefit of workshop is that you have to critique other people’s work and think about the way literature works and the choices writers make; and if I had that particular problem, the decision I would make. And that’s beneficial.

 

INTERVIEWER

What’s your next step?

 

JUSTIN TORRES

I’ve applied to more fellowships because it’s a great way to fund your life while you’re writing books. But if I don’t get any of them, I’ll get a job and I don’t know what that will be. I’ll be teaching in a winter term at the University of San Francisco this year and we’ll see how that goes. The goal for me is to write something of value.

 

Jessica Soffer is the author of a novel forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin in 2013.

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